Five ways Miss SA won over a group of beauty-pageant cynics

At The Daily Vox, we are mostly women, we are very much in touch with our inner feminists, and we’re not into the whole beauty pageant thing because whose standard of beauty is it anyway? However, on Thursday morning Liesl Laurie, Miss South Africa 2015, joined our managing editor, Faranaaz Parker, for a chat via Google hangout, and she knocked the cynicism right out of us. RA’EESA PATHER explains why.

1. Miss SA is an opportunity, not just a pageant
While it is problematic to promote certain standards of beauty and then rank women according those standards, Miss SA is also an opportunity for women who have little access to opportunities. Laurie, who hails from Eldorado Park, a poor community in Johannesburg known for drugs and crime, says Miss SA has given her the chance to do more to give back to her community and to challenge stereotypes.

Laurie says she is using her time as Miss South Africa to build more support for projects like Take A Girl Child To Work and the Pearl Project, which runs motivational workshops for girls and boys from disadvantaged communities.

“Your sponsors [from Miss SA] become your family. If you run to them and say that I need you to do this for this organisation, they will try their utmost best to do it because they are linked to the brand that is Miss South Africa,” Laurie says.

She disagrees with the idea that beauty queens use their bodies to promote brands and causes.

“It’s not a beauty shot. It’s more the pull that you have and the voice that you have [as Miss SA]. In this sense, in a Miss South Africa sense, you use your voice more than your body and I’m more than happy to stand for something,” she says.

2. Commitment to helping communities in need
After graduating with a BCom degree from the University of Johannesburg, Laurie says she wasn’t ready for the corporate world. Instead, she googled her way to organisations that she “felt would be close to [her] heart” and began doing volunteer work.

She first volunteered for Babies Behind Bars, a non-profit organisation that helps children born in prison for the first two years after their birth. As a volunteer, Laurie helped to take care of the babies.

She then launched the Pearl Project, which she used to reach out to and motivate girls in primary schools in Eldorado Park.

“What makes it real for them is knowing that I grew up there. I lived down the street from some of those girls,” Laurie says. “They know that I know how it feels to grow up in a small community, to grow up in a back room without a mom, without a dad, so they link their lives closer to mine easily.”

With the help of Miss SA, Laurie has already begun her 67 minutes for Mandela Day. The project, which she’s been plugging away at for more than two months already, is called 67 Blankets; participants – including Laurie – are knitting 21,000 blankets to mark 21 years of democracy and to help those less fortunate find a little warmth and comfort this winter.

3. Listening to the youth
South African universities are currently embroiled in heated statue wars and on Thursday at 5pm the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town is finally set to fall. Asked where she stands on the statue debate, Laurie said that she’d like to see the statues sent off to museums, rather than occupying pride of place in our spaces but that whatever was decided, the only way to honour South Africa’s democracy would be to listen to the youth.

“We do need to listen to our youth, we do need to listen the voice of our country, because that’s what we fought for as a democratic country … listening to them,” Laurie says.

As the debate about transformation at SA universities continues, many school-goers are struggling to fulfil their dream of further study because they are unable fund their tuition. Laurie, who was helped by the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), says one of the biggest challenges facing disadvantaged youth is that they are unaware of financial-aid opportunities.

“I think they know about the bursary factor but then they worry because they didn’t get all straight As and sometimes a bursary needs someone who was absolutely brilliant at school. But nobody in Eldorado Park knows about financial aid,” Laurie says.

Laurie found out about NSFAS through a school trip to an open day at the University of Johannesburg. She read an NSFAS pamphlet which she happened to pick up and the name stuck with her until it was time for her to secure her studies.

“It’s just letting the kids know there is a way for you to study even if your parents can’t afford it,” Laurie says.

4. Creating a voice for South Africans
Asked whether she felt pressure to represent coloured communities, Laurie says she feels she should use her role as Miss SA to help all South Africans have their voices heard.

“It’s about creating a voice for females, creating a voice for your whole country, because we’re all South Africans at the end of the day,” Laurie says.

Her experiences as a child have helped her shape her perception of South Africa today, and what needs to be done to improve the country.

“I remember when I was in primary school, I went home one day and I asked my gran: why do they call me coloured? She was like, ‘You know what baby, you don’t worry about that, you’re a South African,’” Laurie says.

5. Being a role model for youngsters
Laurie hasn’t had the easiest childhood but her experiences, her positive outlook, and the lessons she’s learnt have turned her into a role model. She grew up with her grandmother, because her mother was addicted to drugs, but even then she remained hopeful.

“I don’t think the drugs and alcohol being with my mom was a negative thing altogether. It taught me how to be independent, it taught me how to be strong, it taught me how to persevere,” Laurie says.

“I always took everything that I did very seriously and I always stayed focused no matter what derailed me from it.”

Laurie says that Miss SA has taught her that sometimes there can only be one winner in life, and that means relying and trusting yourself to reach your goals. But even when you lose, the Miss SA winner, says try, try again because that’s what winners are made from.

“I’ll fall down, I’ll have my cry, but I’ll get up and try again,” she says. “If you have the courage to stand up, dust yourself off and try again, then you’ve already won.”

– Featured image: By Yolanda van der Stoep, supplied.